Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Poet Julie Larios on Joyce Sidman’s UBIQUITOUS: “a symphony of a book”

The StorySleuths are once again overjoyed to share a review prepared especially for us by poet Julie Larios. This time, Julie looks at Joyce Sidman's book, UBIQUITOUS: Celebrating Nature's Survivors. Take it away, Julie!

Not only is “ubiquitous”* a good word to describe the poet Joyce Sidman lately (*Definition: something that is – or seems to be—everywhere at the same time), it’s also the title of her most recently released collection of poetry.

UBIQUITOUS: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors is the new jewel in Sidman’s impressive string of picture books over the last five years, all of which have garnered critical attention and praise, and two of which (Red Sings from Treetops and Song of the Water Boatman) have been named Caldecott Honor books. Beckie Prange, the talented artist who paired up with Sidman for Song of the Water Boatman, is back, illustrating what some people might consider daunting subjects for poets and readers (bacteria, lichens, diatoms, grasses!) as well as more familiar animals and plants like sharks, coyotes, squirrels, and dandelions. Homo sapiens put in an appearance, as do crows, ants, beetles and—one of my favorites— mollusks (“…the pink lip/of a pearled world. // Who swirled your whorls and ridges?”)

What could pull these seemingly unrelated subjects together into a collection of poetry? Well, it’s all there in the subtitle: These are nature’s survivors – tenacious, sturdy, prolific, adaptable, diverse and street-smart (meadow-smart , muck-smart, desert smart and saltwater-smart, too!) It’s a fresh and wonderful concept that’s been executed with elegance – and I do think “elegance” is the right word. The book is not as playful as Red Sings from Treetops, nor is it as serene as Song of the Water Boatman, nor as simple as This Is Just to Say. It isn’t a melody, as those other three seem to be; instead, this book feels positively symphonic. While each one of the poems might be said to function as part of a song line through the book, the non-fiction which accompanies each poem on the facing page is quite a bit longer and more densely packed. It provides deep harmony and variations on the theme. Think Beethoven for this book rather than Mozart!

That’s not to say that Sidman’s particular style as a poet has changed. She’s still got her signature range of traditional forms (for example, several concrete poems, which echo the shape of the object being described) and rhythms, metered as well as free verse, rhyming and non-rhyming lines. This time around, though, the diction is slightly altered. For example, one of my favorites, called “Scarab,” (shaped like the beetle it describes) is almost incantatory: - you’re there, in Egypt, along with the Pharoahs, worshipping:

                                              found me, you
                                      are blessed. Born a grub,
                                  cradled in rot, I am Sheath-wing,
                                 beloved of ancients. You have never
                                  seen armor like mine. As the sun-god
                               rolls his blazing disk overhead, so I roll my
                               perfect sphere of dung across the sands….

(“Sheath-wing” is actually a translation of the word “coleoptera” – the scientific order to which beetles belong. Thank you, Joyce Sidman, for the look at etymology!) I was going to say that the diction and tone of the book are more serious, but that’s not right –they’re simply more intricate.

Have I said yet that teachers and non-fiction addicts will love this collection? On the page facing “Scarab,” the text provides readers with a whole slew of facts about relative size, length of time on earth, and traits which help it survive (did you know beetles have forewings that act almost like armor and allow the beetle to survive in just about any climate?) Added to this material, the illustrator provides a visual step-by-step of the insect’s larval stages. That’s what I mean about a symphony – all kinds of synchronic information to balance the melodic poetry.

Another strong poem (“Come with Us”) provides the song line for coyotes (canis latrans: barking dog!)

Come, come with us!

Come into the woods at evening.

Come canter across the cornfields,

Come slink in the dusk like smoke.

Come, come with us!

Come plunder the wind’s riches….

Meanwhile, on the facing page, Sidman tells us about the adaptability of coyotes to whatever helps them survive, such as a change in social structure or natural habitat (coyote populations come closer and closer now to suburban settings.)

Animals don’t get all the attention. Look at how deftly Sidman handles the anthropomorphizing of grass:

I drink the rain,

I eat the sun;

Before the prairie woods
I run…

On steppe or veld
Or pampas dry,

Beneath the grand
enormous sky,

I make my humble
bladed bed.

And where there’s level ground,
I spread.

“…my humble / bladed bed.” That’s the kind of phrase only a talented poet can write. Someone else might have written “My humble little bed” and the whole poem would have imploded into sentimental schlock. But Sidman knows how to hunt for the perfect word. “Bladed” snaps the poem right back into the natural world – razor-sharp, not sweet and saccharine.

Prange’s linocuts, hand-colored with watercolors (thank you, Houghton Miflin, for providing this information on the pub data page of the book! How I wish more publishers did it!) employ a whole new palette of super-saturated colors for Sidman’s words. The title page alone is worth the price of admission – bright purple, fiery orange, glowing gold, deep black. And the end-papers – well, all I can say about those is don’t pass them up. An illustrator’s note at the end provides an explanation for them.

The author, illustrator, editor and book designer haven’t left a single thing out of this symphony of a book – poems, non-fiction notes, a glossary, author and illustrator notes, and a gecko whose body stands out in relief on the front cover (and whose tail wraps around to the back of the book!) UBIQUITOUS is a singular intersection of language, visual art and science . It adds quite a nice touch to the shelf of Sidman books I’ve been collecting (and oh, it looks like another book, titled Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night is coming out just after Labor Day this year….hooray!)

Thank you, Julie, for once again sharing with us and our readers a deeper look into the world poetic!

StorySleuths Tip #83: Don’t think for a moment that non-fiction needs to be dull! Give a topic your own new, fresh take and create something unforgettable.